Meeting the needs of children who have stressful home lives

For many of us, the realisation that our jobs are all encompassing tends to happen when something important yet stressful happens in our non-teaching lives. For me, it was a recent experience of moving house. I really struggled to maintain the same energy output and headspace needed to be a decent teacher in a primary school while my world was being turned upside down. In response, I looked at ways I could add more routine and automaticity to my teaching role, effectively making myself more efficient and therefore having less to worry about on a day to day basis (while not compromising the high quality teaching). This process got me thinking about those children with similarly stressful lives: to what extent are we providing for their needs? Perhaps some of our underlying assumptions need to be scrutinised through this prism of thought.

One such assumption is that all children thrive on and therefore need variety and excitement in the classroom. This leads to pedagogical choices of groupwork, discovery, projects, cross-curricular lessons, themed days, ad-hoc trips, freedoms to choose and discuss, ‘active’ and outdoor learning. While I agree that we could bring more joy and happiness to many children’s lives through variety, I also think that there is a group of children who need and prefer something different, particularly if their home lives are chaotic, noisy and stressful. What they need to experience is routine and tranquility in order to achieve and be as successful as their peers1.

When I drive to work, I take the same route, even though there are lots of more scenic options. Despite wanting to look fashionable, I’ve inadvertently developed my own rather boring uniform (the classic leggings-and-a-sensible-dress combo). All of us are creatures of habit in some way or another. This is because ‘automation’ of various parts of our lives not only reduces anxiety, but also frees up our brains to devote time and thought to friendships, family, planning and personal growth. The same is probably true for children. I certainly find that incorporating more routine is one of the most effective strategies for behaviour management, plus it helps children to focus on what is important – their friendships and their learning, developing focus and the ability to remain calm along the way. Witness the difficulties that many children have that one day when a supply turns up, or even every week when the HLTA takes them for P.E and R.E, for example. Who are these children who struggle the most?

Without a purposeful approach to providing anxiety-reducing routine for children who have stressful and chaotic home lives, children can also end up becoming more and more (habitually) raucous amidst all that freedom, variety and fun. This would surely affect their educational outcomes too2. We assume that children will ‘naturally’ calm down as they get older, as if scholarly dispositions will emerge of their own accord, but do they really? Even if you’ve agreed with me up to this point, you may wrestle with the thought that children who live in difficult circumstances really ought to be cheered up. At this juncture, we can think about a day when we felt exhausted, stressed and generally down and then think about whether the solution was a surprise party with lots of games. The reality is that we’d probably put on some comfy clothes and do something regular, like having a favourite meal with our family. Children are no different in this regard, except for the fact that they cannot choose routine if someone else is responsible for their day-to-day lives.

The conclusion I draw when I analyse the disadvantaged child’s need for more order and routine in his school life is that we should first and foremost have the courage to really dig out and investigate our underlying assumptions about what children really want and need. Everyone yearns for routine, efficiency, simplicity and that sense of ‘home’, especially children who have no real experience of ‘home’ at home. In the classroom, this means that instead of choosing to explore a story in a wild and wacky way, we can justifiably reach for the story book and simply read it to them. In the staffroom, this means that when we are reviewing our curriculum, we should incorporate an aim for subject stability because children like the certainty of particular topics happening in particular year groups. The disadvantaged child’s need for order and routine should also give us pause for reflection on teaching and learning policy, staff turnover and EYFS practice too. A collective assumption that all children need and prefer variety and excitement might benefit those children who have that sense of security and confidence that coming from an advantaged background brings, but it could be at the expense of children who need us the most.

References:

  1. Budescu, M. and Taylor, R. (2013). ‘Order in the home: Family routines moderate the impact of financial hardship’. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34 (2), pp. 63-72.
  2. Garrett-Peters, P.T., Mokrova, I. et al (2016). ‘The role of household chaos in understanding relations between early poverty and children’s academic achievement’. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 37 (4), pp. 16-25.
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